Associate Professor of Architecture George Ramsey has a number of idea for how urban areas can more efficiently manage resource and energy use.
PHOTO: GEORGIA INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY
It was back in June of this year that MOTHER EARTH NEWS received a
letter from George H. Ramsey, Associate Professor of the
School of Architecture at the Georgia Institute of
Technology in Atlanta and a clear-headed thinker on the interaction of energy use, economic development, and civilization. "I just wanted to let you know that
I read your magazine," he said, "and that you have a friend
here at Georgia Tech. I've done a little bit of village
planning and I might be of some help when you get ready to
start on your self-contained Ecological Research Center.
Let me know if you want to talk about it and, by the way,
do you know of any good sources of heat pipes?"
Well, we wrote back and told George to get in touch
with Isothermics, Inc. and that we most certainly were interested in
picking his brain for Research Center ideas, And that's as
far as the matter went.
Until late this September, when George gave us a ring
and asked if he could bring some Georgia Tech architectural
students up to see MOTHER EARTH NEWS' offices. "What we really have
in mind," he said, "is to get your ideas about the Research
Center so we can spend the next semester doing some work on
the concept. "
Well, we weren't really too happy about the offer
because we were just finishing the fall catalogs for our bookstore and general store and we were in the
middle of this issue of the magazine and a week behind on
the deadline for our newspaper feature and some guys on the
West Coast wanted to do a TV show about us and we were
trying to push the solar-heated house book through and a
design firm in Detroit was working on our little car and we
had magazines to ship and mailings going out to dealers and
merchandise and books to order for the fall season and now
here was this professor, for crying out loud, who wanted us
to sit down and think about what the Research Center should
be like so he could have a "real" project for some college
class to work on.
Damn. Well, OK. "Come on in, " we said, "and we'll try
to concentrate long enough to sort of halfway intelligently
let you know what we want the Research Center to do."
And, sure enough, Ole George did bring a dozen
junior-level architectural students on in to Hendersonville
early in October. And we spent a good long day struggling
to find some way to turn our vague, country boy concepts
into design parameters that would mean something to people
trained (and training) in the field of community
Evidently it was all worthwhile for the folks on the
other end of the exchange and the students were able to
pick a few nuggets from a rather large pile of chaff, because a class of 21 or 22 people are now hard at work
down at Georgia Tech on six or eight different designs for
And—despite our foot-dragging—the exchange
was extremely gratifying to the folks on this end. Because
we became acquainted with 12 concerned, capable, and rather
impressive architectural students. So concerned, capable
and impressive that we're now anxious to meet the rest of
George's class and we're excitedly awaiting the unveiling
of everyone's renderings and models of the forthcoming
proposed designs for the Research Center.
Because somewhere in the early stages of our day-long
discussion, it became apparent that George H. Ramsey was
not your usual bookbound professor of architecture. Why,
this guy had just spent the summer actually pouring
concrete for a house he's building out in his home state of
Oklahoma. He knows what it's like to get his hands dirty!
Ole George is all right.
And he has the book-learning and theory too: Ramsey
studied at the University of Tulsa, got his Bachelor of
Architecture degree from Oklahoma State University and
received an Architect DPLG (the equivalent of a Ph.D.) from
the Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux Arts School of
Architecture at the University of Paris in France. George
won the Medaille d'Argent in France's 1963 National
Student Competition for the design of a 500-room hotel, the
Medaille de Bronze in 1965 for the "Best Individual Thesis
Project of the Year" and (in the United States) a National
Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture grant to
design and teach a graduate course in Energy Conservation
and Environmental Design.
This guy just might be able to inspire a class into
designing a first-rate Research Center, especially
since he's been integrating solar and wind energy systems
into his course work for at least two years and since he
organized and directed a "first" major conference on Low
Impact Energy Systems at Georgia Tech which featured Selwyn
Bloom (Energy Conservation in Building Design), Dr. Erich
Farber (Solar Energy) and Dr. Phillip Coulter (Wind
Dr. Ramsey, of course, has many more honors and credits
to his name but I imagine you've already read enough to
know that he seems to be about as ideally qualified as any
professor of architecture in the country to tackle MOTHER EARTH NEWS'
Research Center. If you need any further convincing,
however, the following paper should do the
The paper is taken from an address Dr. Ramsey gave in
the spring of 1974 at the annual "Tech Today" conference
held on the Georgia Tech campus. The speech was written
before 12% interest rates and the summer/fall plunge of the
stock market. Which is to say that enough of Dr. Ramsey's
predictions have already come true to add a certain amount
of weight to the rest of his view of the future.
While George originally meant his address to be a
rather specialized discussion of one facet of modern life
(the relationship of architectural
design—particularly urban planning—to energy
consumption), it is interesting to note how often his
thoughts spill over into other fields and have a far wider
application. That's the way it is with the environment,
though. You can't touch a spider without shaking its
whole web. Professor George Ramsey knows that, and I wish a
bunch of other professors did too.
And by the way: Professor Ramsey has another very
endearing quality for a man of his stature. He likes to be
called George. I think we're going to get along just fine.
We'll be showing you those Research Center models
once they're completed.
The use of energy has long been associated with prosperity,
economic development, and quality of life. It has provided
fuel for our transportation and the heating and cooling we
use in our homes. It has been the driving force behind our
construction, land development, industry, and business.
Energy is also intimately linked with our current concepts
of freedom of movement, expansion, consumption, and growth.
Its reduced availability, accompanied by diminishing
national resources, threatens our entire life pattern and
ultimately will change all current thought in schools of
planning and architecture. Ultimately, the reduced
availability of energy will change society itself.
This process, in fact, is already well underway and is
evidenced at every level from a two-year staff study
of "The Potential of Energy Conservation" by the
President's Office of Emergency Preparedness, through
nationally reduced speed limits, to lowered thermostat
settings in our homes. Americans are, voluntarily
or involuntarily, changing their lifestyles and the process
will be continuous from this point forward in time.
Our data illustrate two critical points:  the supply
of fuel, resources and energy will never again meet demand
and  we should note that most of the national and urban
complexes in this country have been built during an era of
assumed unlimited energy.
U.S. vs. European Cities
The major metropolitan centers of Europe—Rome, Paris,
London, Moscow, etc.—were well established prior to
1860 and were essentially designed for pedestrian
movement within the city and horse-drawn agrarian supply
from the surrounding environment. This was particularly
true of small communities, but even the larger cities
of Europe have traditionally consisted primarily of three-
and four-story walkups and have been extremely compact. The
inhabitants have usually lived over their shops or within a
15-minute walk of their places of employment.
This pattern was not particular to any nation. It was
universal and simply a result of functional necessity and
(in part) the building technology of the era in which the
cities of Europe were established. Over a period of
hundreds of years, this approach to urban planning became a
cultural pattern in the countries where it existed and
contemporary additions to European cities essentially
maintain that pattern.
Another important reason for the continuing compactness of
metropolitan areas in Europe is the population/land ratio
of the countries involved. France, for example, has 1/3 of
the United States' population living in an area smaller
than Texas. Holland is even more severely cramped. The open
land in such nations is precious—as are the limited
resources—and has been for centuries.
By contrast, the first white settlers in America found a
vast, open wilderness possessing riches beyond imagination.
There seemed to be little need for preservation or
conservation of land, water, or other resources. Each new
load of immigrants—unhampered by the traditions which
restricted their brothers back in Europe—were free to
seek their fortunes in almost any way they saw fit. Our way
of life soon became one of "use it up and move away".
The advent of the Industrial Revolution—and
particularly the automobile—during our nation's
formative years increased both the speed and scale of this
rapidly developing tradition. High energy consumption
became our mainstay while land, water and natural resources
were destroyed at an ever increasing rate.
We became a throwaway society to the point of total
absurdity: Any person could hitch the equivalent of 350
horses to 4,000 pounds of comfort zone (including stereo)
and drive 16 miles to purchase a one-pound loaf of bread or
a one-ounce pin. We even developed throwaway houses (mobile
homes) and no one minded expanding all national and state
highways—at least in part—for their
accommodation. The taxpayers paid for the roads while the
mobile home industry boasted of their products' low prices.
As a result of our "live it up" heritage, we find today
that  we have enormously wasteful habits (it takes the
equivalent energy of 80 people to support one average
American in his daily life pattern),  every aspect of
life in the United States must be reevaluated in terms of
the energy it consumes and  as we rush toward the limits
of our natural resources, our system—which is based
on the increasing consumption of such resources—faces
a serious threat of breakdown.
Since we have only to look about us to document our
wasteful habits, let us move on to point two of the last
paragraph and evaluate the energy consumed by one segment
of our society. And, since approximately 80% (my own
personal evaluation) of America's energy is wasted in our
urban centers, I find it interesting to compare an
automobile-oriented American metropolitan area to a more
pedestrian-directed European city (see accompanying chart),
Pedestrian vs. Automobile Cities
When we compare the population/land ratios of the San
Francisco Metropolitan Area and the Atlanta Metropolitan
Area to the population/land ratio for Old Paris, we find
that the two American cities consume somewhere between 18
and 70 times more land than the older European city.
Although the actual median of 18 and 70 is 44, let's be
conservative and say that the average U.S. city consumes
only 30 times the amount of land that its European
counterpart needs to house a given population.
This, of course, implies that American city
systems—police, fire, transportation,
etc.—cover 30 times the area that similar systems
cover in Europe. Which, obviously, makes them more
expensive to construct and maintain—ultimately, an additional burden our taxpayers
have to support.
There are other implications: The plumbing and wiring
networks in our cities are 30 times as long as they really
need to be. Our children must travel 30 times farther to
school and our workers must go 30 times farther to work. We
might even say that U.S. cities are 30 times less efficient
and 30 times less human than their European counterparts.
Perhaps that explains why, without unduly saddling its
citizens with taxes, Paris has developed one of the world's
largest park systems and lined its streets with trees,
fountains and works of art for all—rich or poor—to
enjoy. Or why Paris was able to construct a 105-mile-long
metro system in 1900 and—in 1930—to develop a
central steam heating system for 3/5 of the city (the fuel
is the town's rubbish).
And that's not the worst of it (when viewed from our end of
the bargain). For, interestingly enough, if Paris really is
an average of 30 times more land efficient than the average
U.S. city, it may well be 100 times more
energy efficient due to the fact that some 85% of the
inhabitants of Paris walk, ride the bus, or use the metro to
get around. And, when one considers the total
energy system—that is, material extraction for the
production of automobiles; the cost of building and
maintaining roads (which are 10 to 100 times wider than
pedestrian ways) and cars; the enormous cost of
constructing and the uglification of parking facilities:
the loss of recreational, agricultural and living space to
highways; and the pollution which private cars
produce—it's easy to imagine that a
pedestrian-oriented city of Europe could be 1,000 times
more energy efficient than an American town which has
surrendered to the automobile.
Waste Begets Waste
California, as I'm sure you are aware, has now permitted
40% of that state's fertile valleys to be covered by
suburbia and the attendant highways that attempt to link
work and home. The loss of this agricultural land is felt
by all of us daily here in Atlanta.
Which points up another area of enormous national waste in
this country: that is, the way in which we distribute our
food and produce. Just as America cannot permit itself to
become dependent upon foreign oil, neither can Georgia grow
to rely too heavily on California's fruits and vegetables.
Recent truck strikes dramatically illustrated the folly of
placing too much trust on such extended lines of supply.
Dr. Erich Farber, Director of the Solar Energy Research
Facility at the University of Florida at Gainesville,
recently found that a carrot traveled 6,000 miles before it
was consumed in Atlanta and that the milk in some local
stores came—refrigerated—all the way from the
city of Cincinnati.
Only 20 years ago, the counties surrounding Atlanta were
nearly self-sufficient. Today they're covered with
suburbanites, trusting souls completely dependent upon
food and other products produced in distant areas which, in
turn, are largely organized under the same stress pattern.
So many states have now moved toward the production of one
or only a few crops that a fairly localized soil failure or
spell of inclement weather or attack of devastating insects
could cripple the nation. This situation cannot long endure
and states—even counties—should immediately
begin to switch back to a more balanced production of food.
As our sources of fuel dry up, today's wasteful
transportation and distribution of the things we eat will
become prohibitively expensive.
Not One Crisis, But Many
It is obvious—as even this short discussion of the
problem is beginning to illustrate—that the so-called
energy "crisis" is not a separate, isolated or one-time
The very lifeblood of our society has always been a
seemingly endless supply of low-cost energy and other
natural resources. Now (despite repeated warnings over a
long period from numerous environmentalists,
conservationists, analysts, etc.) we "suddenly" are finding
ourselves near the bottom of the richest and most easily
tapped sections of our stockpile. At the very time our
energy sources are drying up, in other words, we need
more and more energy to mine less
accessible minerals, farm increasingly marginal land,
produce more potent fertilizer, operate our continually
sprawling cities, transport raw materials and finished
goods over greater distances, clean up the pollution that
this increasingly intensive activity produces, and so on.
As a result, we do not face one single, neat little crisis
(labeled "energy") in America at this time. If we continue
our present course, we're up against potential catastrophe
in, at a minimum, the following areas:
ENERGY BREAKDOWN: We've already
experienced regional brownouts and spot shortages of
heating and motor fuel. Such disruptions will
occur—sooner or later—on a national scale. As
we become more desperate, we'll eventually invest an
exponential consumption of energy in a frantic search for
new energy, leaving ourselves, quite probably, with a
RESOURCE DEPLETION: Our most easily
exploited natural resources have largely been tapped. The
cream has already been—or is currently
being—skimmed away and we face, at best, a future
diet of low-fat milk. The last year has seen supply failing
to meet demand in a number of fields by six months to a
year. Many items are simply "not available until further
notice." The building industry, although depressed, can
look forward only to severe shortages of all supplies,
particularly steel, hardwoods, paper, plywood glues, and
plastics. A U.S. Geological Survey suggests that new
construction could grind to a virtual halt in this country
as early as 1985 due to a lack of resources.
FOOD SHORTAGES: We are already seeing an
inflationary rise in the price of food. Next will come a
real shortage with its attendant hoarding and the
stockpiling of weapons for the protection of those hoards.
In a desperate effort to feed ourselves, we'll probably
allow agribusiness to make a last assault on the Great
Plains. This may well result in an almost complete removal
of all plants, trees and animals that we do not consider to
be edible (thanks to pressure from mankind, life forms are
already becoming extinct at a rapidly increasing rate). We
can expect a further "mining" of our soil; more severe
flooding and droughts as the land loses the ability to
absorb moisture; and greater losses to insects, forest
fires and other natural calamities as we intensify the
monoculture of crops.
Nor will this steady path downward be confined to the land:
Jacques Cousteau, the noted oceanographer, estimates that
the amount and vitality of marine life off U.S. shores has
been diminished by 50% since 1937. Future pollution and
overfishing will only accelerate this trend and, finally,
result in the extinction of cod, tuna, swordfish, squid,
shrimp and other seafood.
POLLUTION: Today's spreading oil,
pesticide, insecticide, herbicide, detergent, and other
stains will continue to spread in the future. As will the
land-, air- and water-contaminating wastes from our cities.
Already dangerous levels of lead, chlorinated hydrocarbons,
and other pollutants in mother's (and other) milk will keep
on rising. The nitrate poisoning of our water supplies
(from massive agribiz crop injections of nitrogen
fertilizer) will become an even greater problem tomorrow
than it is today. We can look forward to more and bigger
spills of nuclear waste. If we continue our present course,
all the rivers will eventually foam and the lakes die.
There will be no insects, no birds, no fish, no forests, no
animals, no life. All will be quite "clean."
ECONOMIC FAILURE: Our current rate of
inflation will accelerate and the dollar will almost
certainly be devalued against gold, not once but many
times. Look for a decline in the stock market of over 200
points in less than a year. Interest rates will rise to
12%. We'll have a national annual deficit of 500 billion
COMPLETE URBAN BREAKDOWN: Enormous
blighted areas stretch for miles upon miles in Detroit,
Chicago, St. Louis, Philadelphia, New York, Newark, etc.
The exodus of people and businesses from our cities to ever
growing peripheral circles is expanding at a national rate
of one mile of radius per year, leaving behind all
accumulated municipal wealth: libraries, schools, theaters,
courthouses, parks, etc. The remaining vacuum of 85%
asphalt jungle is for those who cannot escape. Their
lives are to transpire between super expressways, parking
lots, condemned buildings and old movie houses, while the
escapees are astonished at the crime rate of those too poor
to escape. Entire metropolitan areas have been left without
a tax base to maintain city streets or provide adequate
police or fire protection. This is not to mention the
complete lack of urban space, sidewalk cafes, fountains,
sculpture or simply a decent, pleasant, quiet place to be.
The Solution to These Problems Is Not:
THE ALASKAN PIPELINE: It will take an
enormous amount of materials and energy to develop the
pipeline and the North Slope oil field which it will tap. An oil field which, if it were the sole source of
petroleum for the U.S., would last a mere three years. An
oil spill anywhere along the proposed pipeline will result
in a larger petroleum-caused destruction of land and
animals than any to date.
MASSIVE DEVELOPMENT OF NUCLEAR POWER: The
fabrication of approximately 20 nuclear power plants per
state, as the Atomic Energy Commission now plans, will be a
disaster. Even if such a system can be made
fail-safe—which it cannot unless a miracle positively
does away with sabotage, war, homemade atomic bombs and the
slightest imperfection in the cooling and storage of
radioactive materials—the enormous cost of the undertaking
will be a tremendous burden on the taxpayers of this
country. And, even if the nuclear generation of power does
work as perfectly as planned, it will create an
astronomical amount of absolutely deadly radioactive waste
that—as Dave Brower, head of Friends of the Earth
says—will be around five times as long into the
future as recorded history goes into the past. This is a
terribly dangerous legacy to leave to our children and our
children's children and the generations which—we
STRIP MINING: The strip mining of five
states—as proposed by "rational" politicians and
energy company officials—to provide energy for the
remaining 45 is no answer either. We simply can't afford
the loss of cropland and living space. And, besides, what
will we do when the stripable fuel is gone? Many of our
synthetic products (and there's not enough natural ones to
go around anymore) are derived from coal and oil and gas.
Burning the last of the fossil fuels will preclude their
All Right Then, What Can We Do?
The preceding part of this address suggests insurmountable
problems and, certainly, there is no easy way out of the
bottomless pit into which we now plunge. Still, if we're
willing to make the effort—and it will have to be a
large one—we may yet have a faint hope of altering
U.S. Cities Do Not Have to Be Bad
Although most past and present urban areas in the United
States "just kind of happened" and—if planned at
all—have been based on the false assumption that we'd
always have unlimited energy and other natural resources,
there is no reason for future towns to make the same
As a matter of fact, several very recent examples of what a
U.S. town can be have already begun to map out dramatically
more satisfying and ecologically sound ideas for a
community. Leading this new trend is "Coldspring", a
village of 12,800 people in 3,780 units on 370 acres. The
town, designed by Moshe Safdie and currently under
construction within the city of Baltimore, will be
essentially pedestrian with only one road crossing its
enormous tract of land. All breadwinners will work within
walking distance of their homes, children will walk safely
to school, and local markets and boutiques will provide
pedestrian shopping without the unnerving experience of
driving and the resulting assault of pollution.
I believe we will have a much healthier and happier America
if we apply, on a large scale, some of the guiding
principles behind Coldspring and her sister villages. We
ACTIVELY REDUCE CONSUMPTION AND WASTE. In
the planning and operation of our urban areas and
throughout the rest of our society.
ESTABLISH PRIORITIES FOR THE USE OF ENERGY AND
OTHER RESOURCES. The public, business, the
professions, and government must be coordinated in this
undertaking. State land use policies must be established to
ensure the preservation of town sites and agricultural and
STOP URBAN SPRAWL. Either through
designating land use or establishing legal
limits to the size of our cities. Greenbelt peripheries
should be provided around our urban areas.
STOP MAN'S ASSAULT UPON NATURE. We must
redirect all new urban development to the already blighted
areas of the inner city while establishing central city
open spaces, parks, good schools, and quiet. Roads and
parking should be eliminated wherever possible and only
service vehicles allowed into these new areas. High-rises,
which have very poor energy performance records, should be
kept to an absolute minimum. Building heights, in general,
should be limited to three- and four-story walk-ups,
thus eliminating elevators and simultaneously permitting
the sun to reach street level for plant growth and the
general health of the population.
INTRODUCE ENERGY AND URBAN IMPACT STUDIES FOR ALL
NEW BUILDINGS. That is, if a building—even a one-
or two-story, solar-heated structure—is placed so
that its usage requires long-distance travel in privately
owned vehicles by the public, it would not receive a
ENCOURAGE MIXED ZONING. Travel (which
directly consumes large quantities of energy), pollution,
and crime can all be reduced by mixed zoning which places a
housing unit within walking distance of every anticipated
new business or light industry employee. Light industries
and businesses can also be encouraged to move into existing
bedroom communities. If such production facilities are made
attractive and non-polluting and are provided with little
or no parking, their installation would service the
immediate neighborhood rather than the city at large.
DIRECT NEW GROWTH TO NATURAL SITES OF
BEAUTY. New villages and towns must be prohibited
from agricultural land, they must be completely planned and
their size must be limited. They can either have mixed
employment or be dependent upon a major industry. Land
surrounding new towns should be maintained for agriculture
and recreation. The villages should be essentially designed
for pedestrian traffic and leased cars can be provided for
unusually long trips out of town.
IMMEDIATELY BEGIN BICYCLE PATHS THROUGHOUT OUR
MAJOR CITIES. Studies have shown that as many as
20% of Americans would enjoy bicycling to work if they were
provided with safe trails that were separate from
automobile movements ... or with streets reserved for
bikes only, except for the cars of people living on those
EMPLOY ALL-NATURAL ENERGY SYSTEMS. Solar,
wind, water, tidal, methane. Every possible
non-polluting source of energy must be tested
and—whenever possible—used in preference to
fossil fuels, nuclear power, and other polluting sources.
We can either intelligently go about saving and elongating
the use of energy and resources in the United States or we
can continue our present course until there is little
remaining. Our decision will accurately define our concern
for the nation and our children.
Professor George H. Ramsey Versus High-Rise Buildings
Professor Ramsey, author of the accompanying paper,
is certainly no promoter of high-rise buildings. He says
that such structures, as used in their current
architectural and planning form, produce the following ten
 They are the helpmate and counterbalance of suburbia.
High-rises and suburbia necessitate each other.
 High-rise buildings consume 2,000 to 8,000 times more
mechanized energy for their operation and the movement of
people and goods than do three- and four-story walk-ups.
They also have a high thermal loss from the windrake of
their high surfaces.
 Such structures preclude the use of solar energy on all
buildings which fall within their shadow patterns.
 High-rises eliminate diversity of people and functions
(such "hindrances to progress" are, of course, removed from
the area before such a building is constructed.)
 In their final pattern (New York City), high-rise
buildings eliminate all direct sun from the street . . .
thus largely precluding plantlife, shade, light patterns,
oxygen, visual perception, and delight on that level.
 Vertical construction initiates and feeds the land-tax
ripple effect which eventually drives both small business
and the individual homeowner away from the area.
 High-rises enormously overload all city utilities and
services, particularly the street, water, and sewage
systems. To cover 85% of the remaining area of a city with
concrete (for parking, etc.) is an insult bordering on
criminality to both land and people.
 Building vertically helps create high crime areas due
to the evacuation of workers every weekday evening at 5
p.m. One invariably finds both high poverty and crime areas
adjacent to new high-rise complexes.
 High-rises deplete the city tax base. Such structures
do not pay enough taxes to cover the additional strain they
put on city services. Case Documentation: San Francisco.
 High-rise buildings are a bore. If you've seen the 4th
floor of one, you've seen the 24th floor. Case Study
Documentation: The Ultimate High-rise by Bruce
Brugmann, Greggar Sletteland and the Bay Guardian